Hamlet is arguably the greatest dramatic character ever created. From the moment we meet the crestfallen prince we are enraptured by his elegant intensity.
Shrouded in his inky cloak, Hamlet is a man of radical contradictions -- he is reckless yet cautious, courteous yet uncivil, tender yet ferocious. He meets his father's death with consuming outrage and righteous indignation, yet shows no compunction when he himself is responsible for the deaths of the meddling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the pontificating lord chamberlain, Polonius. He uses the fragile and innocent Ophelia as an outlet for his disgust towards the queen, and cannot comprehend that his own vicious words have caused her insanity.
Hamlet is full of faults. But, unlike Macbeth, who has committed murder and, as a direct consequence, has been relegated to the heap of weak-willed villains, Hamlet has remained a demigod of sorts -- his faults having been quashed by his virtues.
What are Hamlet's good qualities? How is it that even seemingly negative qualities such as indecisiveness, hastiness, hate, brutality, and obsession can enhance Hamlet's position as a tragic hero -- a 'prince among men'? To answer these questions we must journey with Hamlet from beginning to end, and examine the many facets of his character.
Or first impression of Hamlet sets the tone for the whole play. Even without Shakespeare providing an elaborate description of Hamlet's features, we can envision his pale face, tousled hair, and intense, brooding eyes. Dressed totally in black, Hamlet displays all the 'forms, moods and shapes of grief'. His mother cannot help but notice
Hamlet's outward appearance of mourning, but Hamlet makes it clear that the overt signs of grief do not come close to conveying how much sorrow he feels inside:
For they are the actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (I.ii.84-6)
Hamlet cannot forget his father, even when all those around him have resumed their merry lives, content to offer the occasional conciliatory words of wisdom.
The queen, considering she has lost a husband, offers up the rather unhelpful
Thou know'st tis common, all that lives must die
Passing through nature to eternity" (I.ii.71-2), and Claudius adds, amongst other things,
We pray you to throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father" (I.ii.106-8).
Hamlet's tremendous grief is intensified by this lack of feeling by those around him, and more significantly, by the cold-hearted actions of his mother, who married her brother-in-law within a month of her husband's death. This act of treachery by Gertrude, whom Hamlet obviously loved greatly at one time, rips the very fabric of Hamlet's being, and he tortures himself with memories of his late father's tenderness towards his mother:
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother,
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly; heaven and earth,
Must I remember?... (I.ii.141-45)
The respect and awe Hamlet has for his father is seen in the above passage, as the Prince compares the late king to Hyperion, a Titan in classical mythology. The godlike view of his father is enhanced by the comparison of Claudius to Hyperion's antithesis, the satyr, a creature half-goat and half-man, known for its drunken and lustful behavior -- the behaviors of the new king, Claudius. It is no wonder, then, that Hamlet develops a disgust for, not only Claudius the man, but all of the behaviors and excesses associated with Claudius. Hamlet begins to find revelry of any kind unacceptable, but particularly he loathes drinking and sensual dancing. As they await the Ghost on the castle wall, Hamlet hears the king engaging in merriment down below, and tells Horatio that the whole world is feeling the same contempt for his drunken countrymen:
This heavy headed revel east and west
Makes us traduc'd, and tax'd of other nations;
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
It is unfortunate for the innocent Ophelia that the actions of Claudius and Gertrude have also tainted forever Hamlet's thoughts and feelings towards women. Based on the letters and gifts Hamlet gave his once-cherished Ophelia, it is apparent that he did love the girl, and likely felt those feelings of sweet devotion that his father felt for his mother. But, whether due to some overwhelming desire to become the mouthpiece for his father who cannot himself chastise his traitorous wife, or due to the sad fact that all the love in him has truly dried up, Hamlet turns on Ophelia and dest...